How Important is Fidelity?

When Hi8 seemed like an impossible dream

I’m not talking about matrimony, here, but how well an audio or visual recording resembles the real-world phenomena it seeks to capture. High fidelity sounds and images used to be both a mark of professionalism and a barrier-to-entry for hobbyists in the temporal arts (film, video, music, etc.). I suppose the same discussion could have played out regarding the static arts a hundred and fifty years ago — and it probably did — but I’m not much of a painter, so I’ll stick to what I know.

If I wanted to make a movie in 1995 with my camcorder (VHS!), I could do it, but it would look and sound like hell. There would be an obvious and extreme fidelity difference between what I was able to do on my own and what somebody would pay money to go see in a theater. But now that’s gone. I can shoot a movie ON MY CELLPHONE that can play in a multiplex. I can (and have) record a song in my bedroom that will play on the radio.

Loplop Presents Loplop by Max Ernst.

Those are the facts, but my actual question is an emotional and experiential one. To use a food metaphor, has the sophistication of the listener/viewer changed to the point where we are now better able to taste the quality of the ingredients even if the presentation on the plate is lousy?  Or have aesthetic decisions eroded our ability to even tell what’s good or bad about how something looks or sounds anymore? Serious question. What do you think?

People call a lot of Elliott Smith’s and Iron & Wine’s recordings “lo-fi,” but how lo-fi are they, really? I mean, they were recorded on good equipment, you can certainly hear everything clearly, and they’ve got great dynamic range, so what else do you want? Sure, they’re not over-produced in the way that a Rhianna or Katy Perry song puts everything the producer can think of in a sonic pot, but they’re not actually low fidelity recordings. See, for me coming up on metal bands and hard-to-find import CDs from Scandanavia, I heard some stuff that was really, legitimately low fidelity (a lot of black metal comes to mind), where it’s honestly difficult to even make out what’s going on in the song.

The Tincanland blog has done a couple of good posts that touch on this topic, asking the question of whether or not a self-produced album can succeed commercially (sure, why not?), and how artists don’t get a second opportunity to impress someone if their stuff sounds like hell (unless they change their name).

This is a very personal question for me, because when Black Spiral released Defeat way back in the long, long ago, most of the reviews we got were really positive, but the ones that weren’t got hung up on the production. Some writers utterly crucified us for it…but the thing is, the production’s not bad. It doesn’t sound like it was made on a major label budget, but pop in a Darkthrone album from the same period, which  mostly sound like they were recorded on a cassette in somebody’s bathroom, and tell me we don’t win that battle.

A couple of years later, I shot a no-budget DV feature, and not even small film festivals would take it seriously. OPEN WATER hadn’t hit yet, and for most people the idea of exhibiting a film shot on DV was laughable. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the content of the movie — which, again, reviewers really, really liked — just the presentation.

For me, it remains an open question. Audio, video, and computer technology has come so, so far in the last ten years, that we shot our music video for “Broken World” on a camera that was in many ways superior to the f900s George Lucas used to shoot the first STAR WARS prequel. So people are able to make things that look better more quickly and more cost-effectively, and we may have gotten somewhat used to pixellation, compression, and a low signal-to-noise ration.

But I guess if I was handing out advice, it would be to take the time, and put in the craft, to make things look and sound as good as humanly possible. Because I’m not convinced that we’ve trained ourselves yet to look past the presentation and at the content underneath. Or even that we’ve trained ourselves to understand there’s a difference.

About the Name – Sci-Fi Romance

When I decided that I was going to make this album and release it, I had to decide if I wanted to release it under my own name, or come up with a “band” name…even though it’s just me.  My last name, Kotrla, is Czech, and therefore lacks what most people would consider the actual vowels necessary to pronounce it correctly.  It is pronouced “Ka-troll-ah,” which isn’t so hard to say, but the pronunciation doesn’t immediately leap out at you.  My first name has been confused with Lance, Chance, Jance (really? Jance?), and, surprisingly, Matt.

A lifetime of this prompted me to go with a band name.  I also like that it leaves the door open for Sci-Fi Romance to not be just me one of these days (yes, I’m accepting applications…).  There’s certainly a precedent in the genre: Iron & Wine (Sam Beam), Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), and I guess even Five for Fighting (John Ondrasik).  I worry that it sounds pretentious, but at least people can pronounce it.

But why Sci-Fi Romance for acoustic guitar-based folk music?  When I was trying to decide on a name, I read a best-movies-of-the-decade list that referred to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a sci-fi romance.  I love the movie, and the phrase made sense.  I’d written a song based on one of the hallmarks of classic science fiction (“Gulliver Foyle,” named after the main character in Alfred Bester’s Stars My Destination), another about Mary Shelley’s much-harassed Doctor Victor Frankenstein, and I wove Surrealist imagery or phrases into the lyrics of several other songs.  I read the phrase, and it made sense as a name.

You should see my list of band names (which I still have somewhere) — it’s maybe a dozen and a half names that aren’t quite right, and then the last one is “Sci-Fi Romance.”  I wrote it down and immediately knew it would stick. No need to keep brainstorming further.

I didn’t know what to even call this music.  I picked up guitar gradually after playing extreme metal drums for years, and I know that certain aspects of my earlier musical journeys crept into the SFR songs, so to my ears it never felt like straightforward folk music.  I guess both my inclination and musical agnosticism have been validated, since the word that surfaces most often to describe the music is “steamfolk,” riffing on the sci-fi subgenre of steampunk.

I love this.  Steamfolk for life.

PS. A metal friend of mine described it half-jokingly as “folk-core,” which is also great, and I hope will land me a spot opening for the Dillinger Escape Plan.